Rusting Lenses

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More than six months after freelance news-photographer Kamran Yousuf returned home, Muhammad Younis could not get much from the reticent young man. But the rusting cameras hanging around told the story

On March 15, evening, after spending six and a half months in Dehli’s Rohini jail Kamran Yousuf returned home in Pulwama’s Tahab village. Since then, people from the surrounding areas are visiting him daily. Everyone looks blissful except Kamran.

He made an “honest confession” about his inner fear.

Sitting on the first floor of his grandfather’s house, Kamran, who turned 23 during the incarceration, was fully tight-lipped. “I can’t say anything, if you have anything to ask, please talk to my family,” he barely said, indicating he does not want a word to slip out of his tongue. Bailed out on March 12, he still sees his ‘freedom’ as his dream. He says he would never wish to see a jail again in his life.

Last year, in cases of “funding terror and secessionist activities”, 12 Kashmiris were arrested by the NIA for investigations. Apart from separatists and a businessman, Kamran was one among them. A freelance photojournalist, Kamran was arrested by police on September 4, and handed over to the NIA the following day.

On January 18, 2018, after a six-month-long probe, the NIA filed a 1300 page charge sheet in Delhi’s Patiala High Court against the dozen. Kamran, according to the charge sheet, was suspected of being involved in stone pelting, mobilising youth to pelt stones and waging war against India, alongside Hafiz Saeed and Syed Salahuddin.

The charge sheet dubbed Kamran, not a “real journalist” because he never covered “developmental activity of any government department” or any “inauguration of a hospital or a school” or “statement of any political party in power”.“Had he been a real journalist/stringer by profession, he may have performed one of the moral duty of a journalist which is to cover the activities and happening (good or bad) in his jurisdiction,” the charge sheet read.

This was in spite of Irshad Ahmad, Kamran’s uncle, the lone support to him in his battle for freedom, having produced his work before the NIA within days after his arrest. Apart from the “conflict that has engulfed the area”, he submitted evidence that Kamran covered a rally of National Conference in Pulwama, a protest of Anganwadi workers, and a marriage ceremony of Pandits in which they were helped by their Muslims. “I didn’t understand why they (NIA) raised the same question again,” Irshad said.

NIA’s failure in producing any factual evidence to substantiate its case, and the Court admitting that Kamran was a working photojournalist, and as such, his presence on sites of stone pelting incidents was intrinsic were the two basics that helped him to walk out on bail.

But Irshad says Kamran might have walked out early but for the lack of instant support of the media fraternity. “If they (media) had intervened on time, my nephew would not have to spend this much of time in the jail,” he said. “He is home but the media fraternity should always cover the back of their colleagues. It is because of them your papers go to print, and you should own them.”

It has always been a tragedy that photo-journalists have paid a much bigger cost in covering the conflict, perhaps because they essentially have to get closer to the action, unlike the reporters. The 2016 unrest displayed the trend again.

Mir Javid, a journalist in Kupwara was “deliberately targeted” with pellets in August, blinding him in one eye. In September, photojournalist Zuhaib Maqbool, 30, was also blinded in one eye by pellets “aimed at him” by the CRPF. Even after multiple surgeries, both are yet to regain their vision. Zuhaib’s cameras worth Rs 2 lakh were also damaged in the incident.

What is more tragic is that there is no support structure.

In the case of Zuhaib and others, “funds were raised through a Facebook campaign for their medical expenses,” according to an IFJ report. “Except for those who work for national or international media, local press photographers and video journalists do not have protective jackets or helmets. Due to the nature of their work, they are at the frontlines of conflict with no protection.”

Until the time Kamran was released on bail, whatever the expenses to get him released were, taken care by Irshad.

Rubina Akhter, Kamran’s mother, is a divorcee. After getting the custody of her son, she raised him all by herself, by working as a clerk in a private school. Even though Kamran dropped out of the college to support his mother, “he was barely able to fulfil his daily needs from the money he would earn, let alone to support the finances of his mother.”

That is perhaps why behind Kamran, on the middle shelf of a cupboard were two cameras sitting with their leather straps hanging down. Nikon D5200, the first camera Kamran had bought of Rs 25,000 from many years of his mother’s savings.

Because they hadn’t been used for half a year now, both were covered with grime. Is he keen to work again?

“We haven’t thought through that much,” Irshad said. “Let his case conclude first.”

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